Josh Brolin: The punk who became president

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He was a no-good party animal with a famous dad. But, against all expectations, he found huge success in his forties. No, not George Bush, but Josh Brolin, the actor who gives the performance of a lifetime in 'W', Oliver Stone's controversial new biopic

The two, young aspiring actors were hanging out at the low-rent Los Angeles apartment of the older of the pair. They were waiting for a phone call. They knew each other through their girlfriends, and both had auditioned for a lead role in a new TV series, the police drama 21 Jump Street. "Who is gonna get the part?" they wondered. "Who is gonna leave at this moment?" The Call came. "And it was Johnny who got it," recalls Josh Brolin of his old pal Johnny Depp. "I remember him stuffing a military bag full of his clothes and walking out the door." It was 1986, and Depp walked away into one of the brightest careers in Hollywood. Soon he would be a leading man, and a bona fide film star.

And Brolin? He walked into a guest slot in just one episode of 21 Jump Street, then into another series (the 1950s-set Private Eye), then a succession of TV projects, low-budget movies and obscure dramas. Indeed, his most successful role was, in a way, his first: in 1985, aged 16, Brolin starred in the Steven Spielberg-produced The Goonies.

Throughout Brolin's twenties and thirties he would be busy, but largely unheralded, and not particularly well paid. To help make ends meet he developed a successful side-career trading on the stock market; his company, Market Probability, is still very much a going concern, even in these troubled times. But Depp left him in the dust. Brolin would not marry Vanessa Paradis, not become Willy Wonka, nor Hunter S Thompson nor Sweeney Todd, and would not star in a blockbusting Disney franchise about pirates. He would stay being Josh Brolin, dogged but unacclaimed son of the television actor James Brolin. For a long time. Until last year, in fact, when he was a revelation in the Coen brothers' No Country For Old Men and Ridley Scott's American Gangster.

"Can you imagine Johnny's life?" says Brolin with a chuckle. "I love him, man. I have so much respect for that guy. I think he's amazing. His choices! He's it!"

Back then, waiting for The Call, Brolin remembers that Depp had just returned to the US after filming a small role in a movie about Vietnam. The military kitbag was one of the spoils of his war movie, as were a bunch of letters written by soldiers in the conflict, which had been given to Depp by the film's director. The film was Platoon, the director Oliver Stone, himself a Vietnam veteran. Both film and film-maker would win Oscars.

Brolin was a huge fan of Stone's pre-Platoon movie Salvador, the swaggeringly liberal director's brutal and no-holds-barred account of Washington's misadventures in Central American politics in the early-1980s. "I was like, 'Oliver Stone! God!"' marvelled Brolin, 18 at the time. "'I can't imagine working with Oliver Stone! How great would that be?'"

In 2008, the year he turned 40, Josh Brolin finally got his chance, as the lead in Stone's new movie. And not just any old movie from the provocateur-auteur: Brolin plays President George Walker Bush in W, Stone's biopic of the not-for-much-longer incumbent of the White House. Even by the divisive standards of the director of Born On The Fourth Of July, Wall Street, JFK and Nixon, W is a hugely controversial film. And it was controversial even before anyone had seen it.

Would Hollywood's shoutiest and most contrary liberal, the film-maker who helmed two favourable documentaries on Fidel Castro and is a friend of Hugo Chavez, simply be knocking crude and easy lumps out of a widely mocked and widely despised commander-in-chief? What merit to a historical account of a presidency so soon after the event – in fact, while events are still spinning (Bush doesn't exit the White House until January)? Would W tell the truth?

W was shot on a tight budget largely drawn from outside Hollywood – no major studio, seemingly, dared touch it. Stone was determined to have his movie in theatres while Bush was still in office – filming took place barely four months ago. "Oliver said he's never done so many set-ups and so much work in such a short period of time since Salvador," says Brolin. It was, he adds approvingly, "guerrilla" film-making.

It wasn't just the studios that had the collywobbles. Many actors reportedly refused to go near the project, although the cast is both impressive and credible (Richard Dreyfuss is Dick Cheney, Jeffrey Wright is Colin Powell, Scott Glenn is Donald Rumsfeld, Thandie Newton is Condoleezza Rice, Ioan Gruffudd is Tony Blair). Even Brolin admits to initial apprehension. When Stone approached him about the role, the actor considered the director "fucking crazy. My worry was, OK, we watch CNN every day, we've seen this guy for the past seven years, what do we wanna watch him more for? We're bored. We're ready for something else.

"But when I read the script I was blown away. You have an entire life there, 1967 to 2004."

So it's not just a liberal's hammering of a Republican dufus? "Not at all," says Brolin emphatically. "To the point where Oliver may get slammed for that." For not being political enough? "No, it is political, because that's the nature of his family, his dynasty, his legacy. But to follow this guy who for seemingly no reason should have become the President of the United States, and his life and his failings and his successes and his extremes, then turned it around somehow and became the President not once but twice of the fucking Untied States – how did that happen?"

As Brolin sees it, W isn't about taking potshots, even though the finished film doesn't shirk from lampooning Bush's buffoonery and his early, hell-raising days. It tries to explain why the draft-dodging, reformed boozehound had "50 million votes in the first place. Was it because people were so sick of the elitism of George Bush or Clinton, who you see as untouchable? Then this guy comes along, talking to you folksily..."

Brolin did his research. Like Michael Sheen with his portrayal of Tony Blair in The Queen, he didn't want to simply impersonate Bush. Brolin wanted to find the 43rd President's "inner voice". And he dug deeply into his background, personally and politically. What he found made his job easier. But also, he admits, troubled him.

"I was seeing things I liked about him that I didn't wanna see," he says with a wry smile, speaking in his easygoing, rambling style. "And I was learning things about the Republican Party that I agreed with that I didn't want to agree with. So to me it was a great lesson in party leanings and this myopia of, 'Listen, I'm a Democrat, a leftist, whatever, and this is what I want, and those guys are bad and we're good.' Now, to get a more well-rounded education of what motivates these people, it's kinda..." Brolin pauses. "You bring the humanity into it, and suddenly you're really confused because there's a reality there that you don't wanna deal with."

As Stone describes it: "This is the way Josh went about Bush: he became W." But as he dug into the life of privileged scion of a political/oil dynasty, the actor also found "similarities I didn't want to see". Both followed in the footsteps of successful fathers. "But I think George Sr was a lot tougher on his son than my dad was with me. My dad was very forgiving – he's much more passive than I am." Both had strong mothers in the background: Barbara Bush "was a huge motivator in his life, even though she was behind the scenes. Similarly my mother in my life – huge."

He says this firmly but quietly: Jane Brolin, an animal-loving country girl from Texas who raised Brolin and his younger brother on a ranch in Pasa Robles in California's horse country, a healthy distance from Los Angeles, died in a car crash in 1995, the day after Josh Brolin's 27th birthday. (His father, James, is now married to Barbra Streisand.)

"Then," Brolin continues, "the more I read, the more I started to see how much Bush was motivated in everything that he did by this idea of the perfect life. That's very similar to me." Where Dubya, the Washington outsider, hankers after his Texan roots, and seems never happier than when at his Crawford ranch cutting underbrush, "no matter where I go I always say I'm from Pasa Robles, California. I know I'm this guy. I will not waver from this foundation. I won't be Hollywood. So I got his motive – and I think his motivations and intentions were pretty clean." '

Josh Brolin and I are talking at an unadorned beachside fish joint in Malibu, a 40-minute drive from Hollywood. He has the rangy toughness of Llewelyn Moss, the trailer-park cowboy and Vietnam vet pursued by Javier Bardem's "grim reaper" in No Country For Old Men. But he's free of facial hair, and is a good deal slimmer than he was when he played the corrupt, paunchy cop in American Gangster.

He's irrepressibly cheerful company, even though his second wife, the actress Diane Lane, is off working in Africa and they've just had one of those awkward long-distance phone conversations. He works his way through Diet Cokes, seafood tacos and several Salem cigarettes as we have a lengthy, freewheeling conversation that takes in his 20-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter's recent self-funded trip round Europe (Bardem and his girlfriend Penelope Cruz showed them the sights in Madrid); his writing projects (last year he co-authored a play about the rock band AC/DC and a short film, which he also directed and which starred his daughter); and The People Speak, an educational documentary he's executive-producing based on Howard Zinn's book A People's History Of The United States. A tonne of his buddies are involved in that one, including Sean Penn, Matt Damon, Viggo Mortensen and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder.

He's candid, too: he didn't take the role of the Terminator in the upcoming fourth instalment of the movie series because "even though I liked the script there were a few things I didn't care for". He admits he ballsed up an audition with Martin Scorsese for the director's forthcoming Shutter Island: he didn't bother to read the script and spent the audition asking Scorsese fanboy questions about his films (his "buddy" Mark Ruffalo got the gig). And yes, his "yellow teeth" are non-standard issue Hollywood dentistry – but who cares?

One thing he can't discuss in much detail is his and Jeffrey Wright's arrest after a bar brawl in Shreveport, Louisiana, at the wrap-party for W – the case comes to court in December. But he does intimate that it was, if you like, the final flashpoint of the intense and "insane" experience of immersing himself in the world of Bush for three months.

This bright Californian afternoon, Brolin is enjoying his moment in the sun. He's in no rush – just yesterday he was offered a part in a western alongside Kris Kristofferson. Even though he knows the country singer/actor from childhood via his mum (being an outgoing Texan gal, she knew a lot of country singers – Kristofferson, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson were regulars at the Brolin ranch), he thinks he'll pass. "I don't think I'm gonna do anything just now..."

As well as W and the success of No Country For Old Men at February's Oscar ceremony, this year he's also wrapped Milk. Directed by Gus Van Sant, it's a biopic of Harvey Milk, the gay San Francisco politician who was gunned down in 1978. Brolin plays the assassin, Dan White, and Sean Penn plays Milk. Another intense role, then. After many years in the movie trenches, Brolin's career has burst into life – as he puts it dryly, "after having been around for a while". We compare his new-found celebrity to that of 21-year-old Emile Hirsch, his co-star in Milk, and the star of Penn's Into The Wild and the Wachowski Brothers' Speed Racer. "I can't imagine being in his position," Brolin says with a visible shudder. "I would have died in his position. It's too young, too early..."

I don't think he's being overly dramatic. Brolin was a teenage punk rocker. He was drummer in a band called Cito Vice Squad (CVS), who were fairly well regarded on the California hardcore scene. But while he left music to concentrate on acting, his pals stayed in the punk world.

"Eighty per cent of the guys I grew up with are dead. It was a very tight-knit group." Because they kept living the punk-rock lifestyle? "Pretty much. Drugs." Could that have been you? "Yeah... I got out of it early on, I was very lucky." His "best friend", the erstwhile singer with CVS, died recently. "He was down in Juarez trying to kick heroin for the 1000th time and he was doing some alternative African drug. Ended up having an aneurysm in the middle of it."

A "punk" spirit, or maybe just a volatile one, seems to be something of a constant for Brolin. Aged 21 he disappeared to Mexico just after the birth of his son; he drank tequila and wrote an On The Road-style novella. He returned to the US only after his first wife "sent the federales after me. I was," he admits, a "selfish motherfucker". Aged 24, he took himself off to Prague, "got fucked up and wrote a lot", the year before his second child was born. The marriage, perhaps not surprisingly, didn't last. In 2004, the police were called to a "domestic dispute" involving Brolin and Lane.

Still, despite growing up the son of an actor, he always considered himself apart from the sillier side of Hollywood. It's a view no doubt catalysed when, aged seven, he had his ass kicked after foolishly dropping the "Do you know who my dad is?" line to some schoolmates. Avoiding the bright lights of Los Angeles he hung out with working-class kids in suburban California. He knows first-hand the misery of poverty and addiction, and has a jaundiced view of "these guys in Hollywood who are going to rehab – I'm glad they're going. But at the same time the level of pain... there's just no parallel at all with the guys I'm talking about."

His mum, as he said, was a major influence. "She didn't like to be around the acting thing – she thought it was a big froufrou thing. Yet she was very into my father's career. She got him a lot of jobs. She'd call heads of studios and go, 'What the fuck is the matter with you?'"

A "big thing" for Jane Brolin was when his dad's career allowed them to buy the ranch at Pasa Robles. She was an animal activist, and the family had their own menagerie. His brother needed 60 stitches up his leg after being attacked by one of their wolves. "If we hadn't been there, my brother wouldn't have made it, for sure. Incredibly irresponsible of my mother," he says with a chuckle. "She was fun. I know when somebody dies you start to romanticise who they were. But W, she would have loved it. She was a riot. She knew how to play. Not a lot of people know how to play. I like to play," he adds. George W Bush may have renounced booze, found God and embarked on the road to the White House at the age of 40, but Brolin's roguish twinkle doesn't seem wholly dimmed by hitting that turning-point, nor by delayed stardom.

Another interpretation of his punk attitude is his purism. Brolin has long been choosy about the roles he takes. Hence, arguably, the late-flowering of his career. Does he regret that – not least because a lack of money meant he had to sell his own ranch, located near his childhood home in Pasa Robles?

"I'm sad about it, but I don't regret it," he replies sanguinely. "You create the hole and it will be filled. You don't know with what. Could be crap, could be resentment. I was very lucky. I was able to do some good roles. I was able not to be seduced by the celebrity of it all, and to continue to try to make decisions based on this visceral reaction to the role – like W."

W is clearly a project that the restless, edgy Brolin dived into wholeheartedly. Is he comfortable with the thought that his performance may make people like Dubya more? "I dunno if they'll like him more, but I think they'll struggle with the humanity of him – as opposed to just pointing the finger."

Brolin waffles a bit, before deciding that yes, "he is more likeable. That's my point of view. But I think it allows your opinion of him to..." He stops. "I can see Republicans seeing this movie and saying, that's why he's so great. And I can see Democrats seeing this movie and saying, that's why he's a sociopath."

Brolin will defend his movie, and his director to the last. He clearly clicked with triple-Oscar winner Stone, another outsider insider. They've talked about doing another project together – not Pinkville, the director's mooted account of the My Lai massacre (which would be Stone's fourth Vietnam movie), but one that would involve Brolin playing several parts in one movie. "I like that – anything that's exciting like that, and new and different..."

What does he think Dubya himself will make of W? "I truly believe he'll appreciate it," Brolin shoots back, sincere as any politician. "I think he'll watch portions of it and go," – and here Brolin, at last, slips into his version of Bush's folksy, good ol' boy voice – "'Yeah, ohmygod, that's like me!'"

'W' is released in UK cinemas on 7 November

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